by Jay- 7 minute read - 1424 words
Folks who know me will know that I’m quite interested in Japan, Japanese history and culture. Pair that up with my interest in video games and you have a recipe for a specific kind of nerdy/geekdom.
Which leads me to my topic: Segata Sanshiro
A Different Kind of Mascot
Video games have always had their mascots. You have your Pac-Men, Alex the Kidds, Sonic the Hedgehogs, Mario Brothers, and Master Chiefs.
because pluralisation is hard, apparently
But they were always mascots for a single game or series of games. What about a mascot for a single console?
That’s where Segata Sanshiro comes in.
The first thing you’ll need to know about the Japanese people is that they love wordplay. Their TV shows, movies, comic books,
called Anime (which is based on the word animation)
plays, novels and even legends are full of word play.
Japanese Wordplay - A Quick Introduction
The most common form of word play used is Goroawase
which is written 語呂合わせ in Japanese script
Goroawase is all about playing with syllables and creating homophones.
A quick and dirty example would be if I swapped the word 箸 (“hashi”) which means chopsticks for the word 橋 (also read “hashi”) which means bridge. Asking for 橋 (bridge) in a Japanese restaurant wouldn’t mean that the waiter would bring you a bridge, as they know from context that you mean 箸 (chopsticks).
I never said it was a great example
In fact, this one piece of wordplay is used in an Episode of the Japanese TV show Trick in order to foil a person who is masquerading as a psychic. His shtick was to get people to draw a picture of something behind a screen and his assistant (who is sitting in the crowd) would whisper what they had drawn into a concealed microphone which was wired up to a tiny speaker in his ear; he would then draw what they drew, using is “psychic” powers. Except that our heroes drew some chopsticks and he drew a bridge.
that was a bit of a side track, but I think it was worth it
For those who are interested, that example is from Episode 8 of Season 1.
also, for more information on Goroawase, I’d check out this article on Tofugu
What Does This Have To Do With Segata Sanshiro?
Well, back in the late 90’s, Sega had released the Sega Saturn and… well, it wasn’t selling too well
there’s a bunch of reasons behind this
So Sega of Japan decided that they needed a mascot specifically for the Saturn. They decided not to rely on characters from any of their first party games and decided to create their own character to advertise the Saturn.
you’ll soon see why
The advertising boffins decided to focus on a character who trained furiously, who was both a Judo practitioner and a gamer.
Issac Meyer has done a series of episodes on his podcast
He was also based on the titular character of Akira Kurosawa’s first film Sanshiro Sugata, which is about a talented martial artist who wants to become a Judo Master.
As such, Segata Sanshiro is designed to look like a caricature of Sugata Sanshiro.
What’s in a Name?
If you haven’t guessed by now, Segata Sanshiro’s name is not just strikingly similar to Sugata Sanshiro, but it’s also goroawase wordplay. But for what?
Let’s take a look at his name and break it down: せがた三四郎
- せがた - Segata
- 三四郎 - Sanshiro
Working entirely phonetically
how each character sounds
let’s swap two characters in place: せがた三四郎
we’re going to swap the two characters in bold ‘ta’ and ‘san’
This now becomes: せが三た四郎 which is read “segasanta shiro”
Now let’s remove the “n” from 三 (read “san”), which will become さ (read “sa”) and we’ll end up with: せがさた四郎
- せがさた - Segasata
- 四郎 - Shiro
Next we need to to write 四郎 (“shiro”) phonetically using kana
the same character set as the other characters
and we’ll end up with: せがさたしろ
- せがさた - Segasata
- しろ - Shiro
Then we need to put the “n” back, this time between the た (“ta”) and し (“shi”) characters, and we end up with: せがさたんしろ
To anyone who knows Japanese, this reads:
- せがさたん - Sega Saturn
- しろ - Shiro
Which means “play Sega Saturn”
Like I’d said earlier, Segata Sanshiro was Sega’s new mascot for the Sega Saturn, and the Japanese love word play. It also meant that they could directly use the goroawase in creating his name in all of the ads he was featured in.
The ads were extremely simple: show off some Sega Saturn gameplay footage, have Segata Sanshiro wandering Japan in his gi hip-tossing people who didn’t play Sega Saturn games, and have him call out:
Which means “Play Sega Saturn!”
Pretty soon, the ads took on a life of their own. In some of the ads he:
- Attempted to summon a dragon in the ad for Panzer Dragoon Saga
- Rescued people from burning buildings in the ad for Burning Rangers
- Became a home-run scoring Baseball player (kicking the ball to victory) in the ad for Pro Yakyu Greatest Nine ‘98
- Was assaulted by swaths of the undead in the ad for House of the Dead
- Fell in love in the ad for Sakura Taisen 2
- Became a goalie in the ad for World Cup ‘98 France
He even ended up staring in his own video game, which was filled with mini games based on the ads he appeared in - the game was called Segata Sanshirō Shinken Yūgi (“Segata Sanshiro’s Serious Game”).
On the back of that, Sega decided to release his theme song as a full single (complete with remixes and a “karaoke” version). I’ll leave an embedded YouTube video of the song here, it’s suitably epic:
But Segata Sanshiro’s days where numbered with the looming release of the Dreamcast.
What About the Dreamcast?
With the release of the Dreamcast getting closer and closer, and the fact that Segata Sanshiro was created specifically to advertise the Sega Saturn it became clear that he would need to be retired.
As such, Sega decided to have him go out in a blaze of glory
no, no the Bon Jovi song
They crafted an ad which showed an unnamed terrorist organisation attempting to destroy Sega’s headquarters with some kind of missile. Segata Sanshiro, who was hanging out on the roof
for plot reasons, obviously
takes it upon himself to sacrifice himself to save the Sega headquarters - reminding gamers to play Sega Saturn before his is killed.
I’ll leave an embedded Youtube video of his ads here:
They’re worth watching not just for the kitschy nature of the ads or the epic music, but as a genuine piece of gaming history.
Who Played Segata Sanshiro?
Segata Sanshiro was played by Kunihiro Fujioka (his stage name is Hiroshi Fujioka), who some of you might recognise as the original Kamen Rider or as Ryu’s father in Shenmue.
He is extremely famous in Japan, and is seen as a cultural icon. So it would make sense that Sega would choose him to play the mascot for their console.
To this day, he’s still a very active actor. Taking a look at his website
which has a fantastic URL. There’s an English version of the homepage, but it’s not as impressive
you can see that he’s even an active blogger.
I don’t think there has ever been a mascot in video gaming history who can hold a candle to Segata Sanshiro. Combining the goroawase of his name with the fact that the living legend Hiroshi Fujioka played him, and the fact that he was very clearly a product of the 90s means we’ll probably never see an advertising mascot like him again.
Recently, he made appearances in the cross-over RPG game series Project X Zone (he’s even a playable character in the second game).
Had you heard of Segata Sanshiro before you’d read this article?
it’s entirely possible, as he’s having a bit of Renaissance recently
Had you seen his ads, or heard his theme song? Did you enjoy the small Japanese lesson? Do you have a favourite gaming mascot?
Let me know in the comments, and let’s keep this conversation going.